Growing concern over Israel's weapons use

Whether from delayed shock or not, Mahmoud Abu Halima was almost dispassionate as he pointed to the hole in the roof made by the artillery shelling which killed his father and burned to death his baby sister and three of his younger brothers. He had been next door and had come running when he heard the first explosion. “I started to go upstairs shouting ‘mama, mama’,”.he said. “But she was already coming down. She was burning. All her clothes were on fire. I put my jacket on her. She told me: ‘go and get your father, he is hurt.”

The sight that greeted Mahmoud, 20, is one which will presumably haunt him for the rest of his life. The rest of his family had been eating lunch in one of the rooms but when they first heard shooting had moved - fatally - into the hallway for safety. The corpse of his 45 year old tenant farmer father Sadallah, directly hit from a shell - one of three all the family say arrived in quick succession - was, Mahmoud said, “stuck together” with the bodies his three still smouldering sons, Abed, 14, Zaid,10 and Hamza,8 seemingly having hugged them to him in his last seconds. His 15 month old sister Shahed was lying separately after, in the words of her severely burned mother Sabah, also 45, she “melted away” as the missiles struck while she was being breast-fed.

If the investigation which the Israeli military announced this week into the use of white phosphorous is serious, it will have to examine the events at the Abu Halima house here in this semi-rural suburb of of Beit Lahiya, among many other locations. It's unlikely to dwell for long on the fact that the war saw the first use of artillery in Gaza since late 2006.

The military ended it after 18 members of one family were killed by shelling on a civilian house in Beit Hanoun in November 2006.

But it will have to take into account that the Amnesty International have no doubt that the shells which killed the Abu Halima family contained phosphorus. Nafez al Shaban, the Glasgow and US trained head of Shifa Hospital’s Burns Unit is certain that the bone-deep tissue destruction sustained by Mrs Halima, her critically injured daughter in law and grandaughter, were caused by it. And finally fragments of the brown spongy substance, with its unpleasantly pungent smell, are still lying in the debris outside the Abu Halima house.

After a week of ceasefire Israel is facing growing questions not only about phosphorus but what other weapons it used. For the many thousands of Gazan civilians seeking to rebuild their ruined lives the hope that a new US president will be more active in the region than his predecessor still seems barely relevant. And this is not only because of an injury total put by the ministry of health in Gaza at 5,300, or worries about long-term psychological damage to their children. They also face a protracted dispute between Israel, the Ramallah based Palestinian Authority, and much of the international community on the one hand, and Hamas on the other before multi-billion dollar task of reconstucrion can even begin. For most Gazans peace is a return to their previous impoverished life under siege —only worse.

In Gaza City, as the shops open and the Hamas policemen return to the traffic junctions it is possible to see some kind of surface normality. But to drive out here past the bombed out buildings on roads turned into barely passable dirt tracks by the Israeli tanks is to see a landscape described –without hyperbole—by the Red Cross as resembling an earthquake zone. About a mile from the Abu Halima house, two donkeys still lay dead beside road, just as the decomposing body of Shahed Abu Halima did for four days and those of her father and three brothers for nine until the Red Cross could reach them. The family say that while relatives got Sabah Abu Halima through to hospital in the the first truck the second two vehicles were fired on from tanks a few hundred metres down the road, killing two members and leaving the rest of the passengers to flee and abandon the bodies.

Atatra has long been identified by the Israeli forces as a launching ground for Qassams, and maybe some of the ruined buildings a mile or more from the Abu Halima home were booby trapped. But the family insists that no gunmen were operating round the home when it was shelled as the Israeli forces occupied their commanding position here overlooking Beit Lahiya. In Shifa, the wounded and bereaved Sabah, who voted Hamas in 2006, threatens to become a suicide bomber and says she wants Tzipi Livni to “burn as my children burned.” But her cousin Ibrahim, 58, says none of that. “We are all farmers,” he says.” We have no connection to the factions. Why are the Israelis doing this to us?”